One of my challenges when writing this blog has been, and will most likely continue to be, finding reasons to like movies just because that film won Best Picture. I don’t want the movie’s success or the perceived greatness from others to cloud my judgement. Heck, I have my own biases that I can’t allow to get in the way.
Some movies are harder than others for me to keep in a bubble. Annie Hall is an example of a film that was easy for me to gauge my authentic reaction to it. I’d never heard of it before, and, thus, knew nothing about it. So, it was easy to hate, which I did. By the same token, it was also easy for me to love The Deer Hunter.
This week, though, I have the challenge of breaking down probably the hardest film to not be influenced by: Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. In 2007, the American Film Institute rated the 1972 Best Picture winner the second-best movie EVER, only behind Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. So, even though I’d never seen The Godfather, I knew going in that it’s one of the most critically and commercially successful movies of all time.
And, after watching it twice, I can confidently say that The Godfather is nothing short of a cinematic wonder, a true pillar of modern movies, and should remain near the top of the best movies list for decades to come. Its influence on modern media, in both television and movies, is unparalleled because we still see the impacts of its innovations 45 years later.
The basic story follows a tense and fragile exchange of power from “The Don” Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), the head of an immensely powerful Italian-American family in New York, to his sons Sonny (James Caan) and Michael (Al Pacino). For just a hair less than three hours, this exchange plays out in dramatic, subtle, and often violent ways.
It’s a film that showcases fantastical irony and changes tone at the drop of the hat. It allowed us an exclusive look inside the seedy side of a life of crime, a privilege not afforded to all. We peered further than we wanted into black souls of men (and even women) who have been lost to the devil’s clutches for generations.
But, I already knew the basic gist of the story and of its violence. What I wasn’t expecting, however, was its mastery of the narrative, its visually arresting spectacle, and its near perfection in almost every aspect.
This creates another problem for me, though: what the heck do I even say about this great film? The Godfather is so loved and so talked about and so well-known that simply singing its praises correctly worries me. I’ve struggled with this question for days. And, my answer is that I don’t have to be concerned with the opinions of other critics. All that matters is my own. You’re here for my opinion. And that’s what you’ll get.
Now, for the rest of the movie:
The Godfather’s plot is a complicated sub sandwich of a story. In other words, it has so many delectable layers that it kept me solidly intrigued for its entire 175-minute run time. In fact, it’s almost a blistering three hours in length.
That’s not to say that the plot doesn’t meander, though. There are two weddings, two trips to the west coast, a trip to Sicily, and plenty of killing.
The narrative structure is simple. Vito Corleone must pass the family business to his sons, Sonny and then Michael.
When it comes to why the story is so good, there are a couple of examples. The first is the irony in it. Coppola makes you feel both safe and repulsed at the same time with his clever pairing of offsetting scenes.
The opening scene features the wedding of Vito’s daughter Connie (Talia Shire). During the wedding, Vito is in his office, entertaining a variety of characters who are all asking “The Don” for favors. These range from arranging killings, to dealing with unions, to beating people that have wronged those visiting Vito. Meanwhile, the wedding is going on right outside the walls of the office. It’s a celebration on the outside with seedy deals on the inside. This illustrates how Vito operates his business and it also gives us a glimpse at who the man really is.
The second narrative example is how quickly the tone of a scene or even the whole movie changes from one frame to the next. The film seems to hum along and then there’s suddenly a bomb in car or a shooting on the side of the road. This illustrates life, I suppose. And, not knowing the coming fates for each of these characters keeps me engaged throughout. 1.
The Godfather is based off a Mario Puzo novel of the same name. The screenplay was written by both Coppola and Puzo and it won the pair an Oscar for Best Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium.
Being that the Corleone’s are Italian-Americans, and the other powerful families are also Italian-Americans, the script reflects that. It’s full of Italian. I normally watch movies with the captions on to help understand the whole thing.
But this script was great in other ways. I was reminded a lot of the book Gone with the Wind (one of my favorite novels ever) when I was watching The Godfather. The movie is expertly written, but what ties it together are a series of insanely well-written exchanges. One of those about halfway through the film. Michael just had his jaw broken by the police captain. The Corleone family is sitting around, plotting how best to exact revenge against him and the man he’s protecting. The exchange is circular, starting with an idea, going off on some tangent and then coming back to that same idea to prove a point. 1.
Chris Newman, Charles Grenzbach, and Richard Portman were nominated for Best Sound at the 45th Academy Awards. The sound in The Godfather is, like the rest of the movie, top-notch. Explosions, bullets and other effects are clear.
But what really stands out is the original score by Nino Rota. It’s not featured prominently, for sure, but it is, in its own way, another character in the movie. The score features slow droning trumpets that add a tone of seriousness to the film (as if it didn’t already need it). It’s mostly used in transitional elements, but that helps keeps the movie a cohesive unit. I certainly recommend checking it out. 1.
When it comes to the set for The Godfather, the production design team had to be on their toes. First of all, the movie is a period piece, set from 1945 to 1955. This required a great amount of research and experience. This included the vehicles. Believe it or not, a lot of this movie takes place in and around vehicles. So not only did the movie need those cars, they blew the hell out of some of them.
Second, Coppola made the decision during pre-production to shoot The Godfather almost entirely on location, New York, Sicily, and Los Angeles. This decision to venture out lent an incredible amount of authenticity to the film.
One more thing of note: Sicily looks absolutely beautiful. I want to go. Badly. 1.
Gordon Willis was the Director of Photography for The Godfather. This movie was just beautiful from the opening shot. Every single shot was crafted so perfectly, you could have cut them out and put them in the Louvre.
When I was watching The Godfather, I was reminded of No Country for Old Men and how it’s a modern noir. The Godfather is like that, too. In fact, it’s probably the genesis of modern noir.
Willis earned the nickname “The Prince of Darkness” after shooting this movie. The Godfather is incredibly underexposed. The limited light tells a story of its own. This terrific video from ScreenPrism goes into much greater detail about the lack of light in The Godfather, but I’ll talk about it briefly. When it comes to the human face, the eyes, and the eyes alone, are the windows to a person’s soul. The eyes can tell you everything about a person.
Willis would light his scenes from the top, rather than the front. This forced a shadow across the actor’s faces from the eyebrows and it created a dark pit where the eyes should be. This, for the most part, keeps you from seeing expression in a character’s eyes. This is reflective of that character’s soul. Brando’s eyes are always in shadow, and when you do see them, Brando wears a sad and tired expression of a man who’s lost, who hasn’t had a soul for most of his life, and one who almost isn’t human anymore.
The darkness in this film can’t cheer up anyone who watches it. It’s reflective of the darkness of the criminal life of a mobster, one whose life itself could end at any time. 1.
Me being a young man, I was shocked when I realized that, due to its commercial success, The Godfather, launched several acting careers. Pacino, Diane Keaton, James Caan, and Robert Duvall all probably owe all or a significant chunk of their success to this film. When it comes down to it, though, The Godfather is really about two men who are as deep as the Mariana Trench: Al Pacino and Marlon Brando.
Pacino plays the youngest Corleone son, Michael, who is the pride of the family with his heroics during World War II. But he doesn’t want any part of the family business, or not at first. But as the Corleone family becomes more involved in a war over narcotics, so does Michael. He must prove himself in the eyes of his brothers and the family advisors.
He’s a confusing protagonist, throughout the film and you’re never quite sure if you should be rooting for him or not. He sheds the facade of innocence and emerges more powerful and sinister than anyone else. But, that’s a slow burn, with the flame only burning after a series of horrible personal tragedies that would test any person.
Pacino is calm and cool throughout the film. He delivers his line with perfect measurement and embodies a fallen angel. For his performance, Pacino received one of three Best Supporting Actor nominations for his role. Caan and Duvall both received a nomination in this same category, although none of them actually won.
To me, though, the most fascinating person in this entire film is Marlon Brando, and I’m not entirely sure why. The character arc for Vito Corleone is sort of a reflection of Brando’s career. But, I’m getting ahead of myself.
Vito Corleone, or “The Don” is a shrewd, yet reasoned, aging patriarch of the Corleone family. He’s responsible for their status in New York, and the rest of the country, for that matter. He deals harshly, brutally, yet squarely with everything that gets in his way.
During the screen tests, Brando originally stuffed cotton balls in his cheeks to make Vito look like a bulldog. During the actual shoot, though, he used a mouthpiece. This, combined with a raspy voice and a perfect accent, Brando made The Don come to life in a way that nobody else could.
But, when it comes to Brando himself, his journey as Vito is much more complicated. He originally didn’t want the part, but Coppola convinced him to give it a try. Throughout the movie, Brando was not refined in his movements, but he didn’t need to be. Vito was a very conflicted man, holding a boxcar of expectations on his shoulders. And even if he wasn’t completely smooth and sharp, anytime he was on screen, I felt that same box car on my shoulders. This was his perfect role, and it’s a miracle that he was even considered for the part. His story is certainly a tragedy.
Brando, who rose to fame throughout the 1950s and even won an Oscar, was coming off a decade in the 1960s in which he was labeled as box office poison. None of his movies made money during that time and his star had faded. Yet, he continued to act. By the time he appeared in The Godfather, his career was almost in shambles, at the age of 47. The Godfather didn’t save his career, but it certainly redefined it. He was at the top of his game from 1971 to 1973, with back-to-back Oscar nominations for The Godfather and Last Tango in Paris. His performance as Don Corleone is one that will stand the test of time and will always be remembered for Brando’s sheer perfection in the role.
I don’t normally recommend podcasts, but if you want to know more about the incredibly tumultuous life of the trouble, eccentric, and exceedingly complex Marlon Brando, I recommend this particular episode of “You Must Remember This” by Karina Longworth. Her entire series is extraordinary and her biography of Brando is exquisite. The episode is about 40 minutes long so download it and listen to it when you’re getting ready for the day or on your way to work. 1.
So, is The Godfather one of the greatest movies of all time? It’s a complicated answer.
Francis Ford Coppola didn’t set out to create the best movie ever when they started shooting The Godfather in 1971. Coppola, like so many other people involved with the film, was an unknown of Hollywood directors. He’d proved himself as a writer, co-writing 1970s Patton, which won Best Picture. His effort with The Godfather was constantly scrutinized by Paramount and it’s a wonder the film even got made at all. Yet, the movie came in ahead of schedule and under budget.
Along the way, it seems like Coppola did every single thing right in this film from the cinematography to the writing to the casting decisions to the narrative. Almost everything about The Godfather is perfect. But is it the best movie ever? Again, it’s complicated.
To answer that question, I will echo the sentiments in this video, a lesson in film criticism feature Citizen Kane. What makes a film great is not just its technical aspects or its acting, but also what the movie does to those who watch it and what it does to every movie that follows it. The Godfather launched, or redefined many great careers and forever changed the way that movies were presented. And it couldn’t have come at a better time. I don’t think that the movie would have been made in 1962, for example. America had to come through the titanic cultural shifts and incredible turmoil of the 1960s before audiences would accept this movie. It introduced audiences to not only the seedy underworld of mobsters but ushered in entirely new ideas of visual storytelling and the use of very dark themes. Nobody had ever thought to light characters both so poorly or so brilliantly. Few other filmmakers were able to blur the lines between protagonist and antagonist like Coppola.
To put it simply, The Godfather is a one-of-a-kind piece of art that leaves me devoid of criticisms. Every single person that plays any major role has depth and fights for their own souls as the narrative progresses. It moves so seamlessly from familial pride to utter chaos and tragedy. Just like The Deer Hunter, it’s not there to be anyone’s high horse or anyone’s political statement. It’s there to entertain. But the film is more than that. It’s a smart, crafty, and downright beautiful film and I can’t wait to see the next one.
Just like last week, The Godfather gets a 10 just because it was such an amazing film. I can’t give out only three points to this movie.
Final score: 10/10
The Godfather won the 45th Academy Award for Best Picture on March 27, 1973 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles. Carol Burnett, Michael Caine, Charlton Heston, and Rock Hudson hosted the ceremony. In all, The Godfather was nominated 10 times but won only three awards: Best Actor, Best Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium, and Best Picture. It beat out Cabaret, Deliverance, The Emigrants, and Sounder for Best Picture. Clint Eastwood presented the award. Additionally, it was nominated for three Best Supporting Actor awards, Best Costume Design, Best Sound, Best Film Editing, and Best Director.
Other winners that night included Bob Fosse winning Best Director for Cabaret, Liza Minnelli winning Best Actress for Cabaret, Joel Gray winning Best Supporting Actor for Cabaret, and Eileen Heckart winning Best Supporting Actress for Butterflies Are Free. Cabaret holds the record for the most awards won by a film that did not win Best Picture.
Finally, Brando did win the Academy Award for Best Actor, his second. Brando had been involved in social causes his entire life and in the early 1970s, he was involved with the American Indian Movement. In 1973, the Wounded Knee incident wrapped up Brando and he even spent some time at Wounded Knee, protesting with Native Americans. He boycotted the Oscars, sending Sacheen Littlefeather, a young Apache actress to accept the award on his behalf. Brando skipped the ceremony to protest the treatment of Native Americans in Hollywood. Littlefeather shocked the film world when she refused the Oscar on Brando’s behalf, meeting a chorus of boos. Brando is only the second actor to refuse the Best Actor Oscar (the first being George C. Scott in 1970), but he’s the only one to do it as a huge middle finger to the Academy.
We’re continuing to chug towards the 90th Academy Awards. Here’s a look at two more Best Picture nominees, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and Phantom Thread. As a warning, both videos contain MAJOR spoilers.
Next week, I continue in the world of the Corleone family with 1974’s The Godfather Part II, the first sequel to win Best Picture. After that, it’s Dances with Wolves, My Fair Lady, Casablanca, The Greatest Show on Earth, The Silence of the Lambs, Unforgiven, and Million Dollar Baby.